Bruno Latour (1947-2022) and critiquing science

The French philosopher Bruno Latour passed away on October 9, at the age of 75. I don’t know if many people in India have noticed but people abroad, especially in Europe, have. His passing leaves a considerable vacuum in the field of science and technology studies, but I’d like to memorialise his passing here for what I learnt from him about the nature and purpose of critique. To learn about critique through the work of Latour was to first learn about critique and then to learn how to critique critique itself. Ignorant me particularly enjoyed how, in Pandora’s Hope (1999), Latour turned the rhetoric about science being politicised around to consider how much better politics would be without the influence of science, especially by the characteristic focus on objective facts, the little details and the absolute application of cold logic.

… when [Callicles] defines the goal of his aristocratic friends, he paints an accurate portrait of the real qualities that Socrates entirely lacks: “The superior people I mean aren’t shoemakers or cooks : above all, I’m thinking of people who’ve applied their cleverness to politics and thought about how to run their community well. But cleverness is only part of it; they also have courage, which enables them to see their policies through to the finish without losing their nerve and giving up” (491a-b).

It is precisely this courage to see “through to the finish,” that Socrates will misrepresent so unfairly when he destroys the subtle mechanism of representation by polluting it with the question of an absolute morality. To see a political project through, with the crowd, for the crowd, in spite of the crowd, is so stunningly difficult that Socrates flees from it. But instead of conceding defeat and acknowledging the specificity of politics, he destroys the means of practicing it, in a sort of scorched-earth policy the blackened wreckage of which is still visible today. And the torch that set the public buildings ablaze is said to be that of Reason!

… political reason cannot possibly be the object of professional knowledge. … Politics is about dealing with a crowd of “non-experts,” and this situation cannot possibly be the same thing as experts dealing with experts in the inner recesses of their special institutions. So when Plato is making his famous joke about a cook and a physician pleading for votes in front of an assem bly of spoiled brats (522), it takes very little talent to twist the story to Socrates’ embarrassment. This funny scene works only if the crowd of Athens is made up of spoiled kids. Even putting Socrates’ aristocratic scorn aside, nowhere does it state, if the story is read carefully, that it pits a serious expert against a populist flatterer. Rather, it stages a controversy between two specialists, the cook and the physician, talking to an assembly of grown men about either short-term or long-term strategy, the outcome of which neither of them knows, and through which only one party is going to suffer, namely the demos itself.

(pp. 239-241)

But more broadly than just science, I learnt from Latour’s books and essays what it means to be a critique per se. This sense of purpose will be constantly eroded if you’re working for The Wire, and I imagine other similar publications, defined at once by their public engagement and a trenchant anti-establishment stance. In response to every bit of critique, a thousand trolls erupt accusing us, claiming to look beyond The Wire‘s veil of intellectualism into a heart that wants nothing other than to drag India through the mud. The idea that critics care deeply for the thing that they are critiquing is lost on these trolls, and in fact most followers of the Bharatiya Janata Party, even those closer to the margins. Most, if not all, of our less loyal readers want to know why we’re so “negative all the time” and expect us to justify our attitude with anything other than the obvious reason. So it’s important to constantly replenish my sense of purpose, and Latour in this regard has been very helpful, more so since his work has often been concerned with matters of science and society.

But to be a student of critique in Latour’s classroom wasn’t easy. For example, around five years ago, I discovered while reading Latour’s 2004 essay, ‘Why has critique run out of steam?’, that I was often guilty of adopting the post hoc “fact position” of critique and thus levelling unfalsifiable allegations instead of creating new knowledge, much less anything useful. Critique has to be animated by concern for the subject of criticism in order to be useful. The obvious answer to the trolls and the naysayers’ question to us is this: the critic is the gardener and the subject of criticism the garden. Otherwise, no matter how well dressed, it is simply outrage. Excerpt:

The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather. The critic is not the one who alternates haphazardly between antifetishism and positivism like the drunk iconoclast drawn by Goya, but the one for whom, if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile and thus in great need of care and caution. I am aware that to get at the heart of this argument one would have to renew also what it means to be a constructivist, but I have said enough to indicate the direction of critique, not away but toward the gathering, the Thing.

The practical problem we face, if we try to go that new route, is to associate the word criticism with a whole set of new positive metaphors, gestures, attitudes, knee-jerk reactions, habits of thoughts. … We all know subcritical minds, that’s for sure! What would critique do if it could be associated with more, not with less, with multiplication, not subtraction. Critical theory died away long ago; can we become critical again … ? … generating more ideas than we have received, inheriting from a prestigious critical tradition but not letting it die away, or “dropping into quiescence” like a piano no longer struck. This would require that all entities, including computers, cease to be objects defined simply by their inputs and outputs and become again things, mediating, assembling, gathering many more folds than the “united four.” If this were possible then we could let the critics come ever closer to the matters of concern we cherish, and then at last we could tell them: “Yes, please, touch them, explain them, deploy them.” Then we would have gone for good beyond iconoclasm.

RIP, Bruno Latour.